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University presidents lobby Cuomo for public schools

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following letter, dated Jan. 2, was sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo by Clarkson University President Anthony Collins, Potsdam, and St. Lawrence University President William L. Fox, Canton. The contents of the letter were read at Thursday’s School Equity Advocacy meeting.

Dear Governor Cuomo:

We write on an urgent matter; a matter with which you are familiar but one that may have missed your personal attention in this hectic time at our state’s capitol. Therefore, we raise the issue of our public school districts in the North Country and the financial crisis which threatens the education of the children of the region, results in their weakened chances for a bright future, threatens the economic stability of the largest employers in the region, and diminishes the quality of life for all of us who call this vital part of New York State home. We urge the immediate repeal of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and we ask that your office staff work with us for reform that includes costs controls (mandate relief) as well as changes in the formula for allocation of state aid to provide aid where it is most needed.

St. Lawrence and Clarkson universities are located in the villages of Canton and Potsdam, respectively. As two of the largest employers of the region, we promote the quality of life of the North Country to attract and retain valuable employees. Our two institutions, in fact, represent approximately $500 million in economic impact to the North Country. Having a strong workforce means we can attract students, we can raise funds from our alumni who feel pride in their alma mater, and we can directly assist regional efforts through a robust volunteer corps and collaboration on economic development projects. Further, of course, our universities add value to the state’s workforce when we graduate well-prepared students.

We cite this information to form the foundation of our argument that the quality of K-12 education relates directly to economic stability and progress. Such quality is in imminent jeopardy.

Cuts in state aid, combined with the implementation in Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), have resulted in an 8 percent decrease in education funding, from $20.93 billion in 2010-11 to $19.26 billion in 2011-12. While state funding of schools received a 4 percent increase last year, our local schools did not see an increase. In fact, Canton Central School district saw a 1.7 percent decrease in revenue, in large part due to the inequitable distribution of the GEA. These cuts, in combination with higher costs, have led to significant staff reductions, at least one lead teacher per grade as well as valuable remedial instructors, advanced placement, music and sports programs. While some cuts may be warranted, next year will require a similar set of cuts, sending average class sizes (K-12) into the 30s. While many districts can increase property taxes to make up for these decreases, our local districts would need to raise taxes by 60 percent in order to recover cuts in state aid. These numbers reflect Canton Central School’s fiscal situation. Potsdam is similar, lagged by a year, as their reserves also become depleted.

We urge the GEA to be repealed. If GEA must stay, we suggest a more progressive system for GEA. In calculation of the GEA, Canton, Potsdam, and other area schools are in the same category a school districts which are two to four times as wealthy. This outcome is inherently unfair and unjust to the students of our region.

Your initiative to contain local taxes through your property tax cap legislation is to be applauded. To achieve your desired impact it needs to be coupled, as you have suggested multiple times, with mandate relief.

We ask that the Gap Elimination be repealed. Any decrease in state funding should come from the base funding for all schools to realize any benefit of small increases in state aid. In the long term, we suggest a reform that includes a combination of mechanisms to control costs (mandate relief) as well as changes in the formula for allocation of state aid to provide aid where it is most needed.

You have faced multiple challenges in the two years of your first term, and to your great credit, have advanced New York State despite times of extreme financial hardship. We, too, work within strict financial constraints, and as you know, one of us is the co-chair of the North Country Economic Development Council. Therefore, we stress the critical link between wise expenditure of scarce state resources for economic development and the creation of a workforce of the future - the latter being intimately tied to K-12 education. Without an educated citizenry, our current economic development efforts will be squandered.

The funding system for our K-12 school districts is creating inequality that is being felt disproportionately in our region. We urge you to repeal the Gap Elimination Adjustment so that students of the North Country have an equal chance at a strong future as students in other regions of the state.

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